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​Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, center, speaks with L-3 representatives on an AT-802L Longsword on Wednesday during a visit to Holloman AFB, N.M. Wilson visited the base to highlight the Air Force’s light attack experiment, looking at four possible new close air support aircraft. Air Force photo by A1C Alexis Docherty.

—Brian Everstine

HOLLOMAN AFB, N.M.—The light-attack experiment that is ongoing here isn’t just a way to evaluate a possible new close air support aircraft, it’s a test to look at a new way to do business for the Air Force.

“We have to think about things in new ways, identify new capabilities faster than we have done in the past,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said Wednesday at Holloman AFB, N.M.

The experiment, where four commercially developed aircraft are being evaluated for a possible off-the-shelf fleet to fly permissive close air support, is a part of a “drive to innovation, to find rapid and affordable solutions,” Wilson said.  

The Air Force, in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, received $6 million and new authorities to have commercial entrants vie to have their aircraft flown by USAF pilots and tested for their light attack ability. Within five months of the program developing, four entrants arrived on the ramp at Holloman. If the entrants prove worthy, they will then take part in a “combat experiment” where they will fly real-world missions. This is all before a possible acquisition program if the Air Force decides to buy an aircraft.

The program is similar to Air Force-commercial partnerships in the 1950s and ’60s, Wilson said, where the service worked closely with companies to quickly develop new aircraft and weapons systems. Now, too much of the Air Force’s acquisition is long, drawn out, and expensive.

“Innovation is in the DNA of the United States Air Force,” Wilson said. “Sometimes, maybe at some points in our history, we have lost that.”

In the next few months, there will be a “wide-ranging review” of Air Force research priorities to determine “what are the big things we have to drive forward to create the Air Force of 2030.” The light attack experiment at Holloman could be a precursor to how those future needs are addressed, and how the Air Force can “get capabilities to airmen who need them today, and can’t wait two to three years for the normal acquisition process.”

The Air Force can’t be afraid to fail in trying to quickly develop new capabilities, Wilson said. There should be a push to “fail productively,” and learn for future development and acquisition. In fact, if there is a failure in the light attack experiment or another rapid development process, Wilson said she will buy the cake to celebrate.